Mexico Bishop at Center of Crisis

Bishop Samuel Ruiz has garnered followers and critics in his bid for Indian rights

The Mayan Indian rebels and Mexican government agree on precious little, to date. But they have agreed on a mediator: Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia.

Bishop Ruiz is a controversial figure who - even before the rebellion that began on New Year's Day - had a reputation of being in the center of nearly every maelstrom in Mexico's state of Chiapas over the past three decades.

At the start of the insurrection, there were accusations that Ruiz fomented the Indian uprising. State and federal government officials also claimed that Catholic lay preachers were organizers among the guerrillas.

``We all know who's behind this,'' says Alfredo Ruiz, a San Cristobal businessman. ``The bishop arrived here 30 years ago and began filling the Indians' heads with new ideas, holding seminars in the villages.'' Although Ruiz sympathizes with the goals of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), he condemns its violent tactics.

On Saturday, it looked as though Ruiz would get a chance to work for reform and peace as the EZLN sent a message proposing that a former Chiapas governor, kidnapped on the first day of the uprising, be freed in exchange for the release of EZLN members captured by the Mexican Army. And the Mexican government's Commissioner for Peace, Manuel Camacho Solis, told reporters that he and Ruiz were ready to meet with the rebels, but did not say when or where.

Blaming Ruiz for Indian activism is nothing new, says Jacinto Arias at the Chiapas Cultural Institute in Chiapas' capital Tuxtla Gutierrez. Similar charges have been made when land conflicts between ranchers and Indian peasants, frequent in Chiapas, turned violent.

``If making people aware of their situation and history, if that's cooperating with the guerrilla movement, then in that sense the bishop is cooperating,'' says Mr. Arias, a Princeton University educated Tzotzil Indian.

Ruiz has held almost daily news conferences since the uprising started. Responding to the charge that the rebels are aided by some of the 15,000 catequistas, or lay preachers, the Catholic Church counts in Chiapas, Ruiz says, ``I'm not responsible for all the catequistas who join the [ruling] Institutional Revolutionary Party nor those who join any other political group.''

Waxing theological, Ruiz adds: ``The word of God is a light, which isn't pointed at the sky but at the ground. It's so we can see a tree or a rock or any other obstacle in our path. The word of God illumines the obstacle but it doesn't tell us how to get past it. That's up to us. The Church can't tell people which path to take.''

The path chosen by Ruiz has often led to controversy. The Church's Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center has been a thorn in the side of state and federal governments by documenting and denouncing mistreatment of the poor in Chiapas.

The city and the human rights center take their name from a militant Dominican friar who fought the Spanish conquistadors' abusive treatment of the natives about 450 years ago and succeeded in getting laws passed banning slavery in Mexico.

Ruiz is also noted for being one of the principal proponents of liberation theology in Mexico. The theology took hold among Catholic bishops in Latin American in the mid- to late-1960s. It encourages priests to reach out to impoverished parishioners and provide not only spiritual but secular guidance on social problems.

Mexican political scientist Alfonso Flores Zarate says liberation theology is one of the factors in the Chiapas uprising. ``Ruiz has had an important impact on modifying the political culture of the indigenous in Chiapas,'' Mr. Zarate says.

``The Spanish repression left a passive, submissive Indian culture. It was often reinforced by the Catholic Church which,'' he says, ``taught the Indian poor that the more they suffered in this life, the more they received in the afterlife. But liberation theology contradicted that by teaching them to organize if you don't want to suffer.''

In Central America, where liberation theology took root alongside leftist guerrilla movements, it was often opposed by the wealthy, ruling class. ``Landowners saw it as outsiders coming in to stir up the happy peasants,'' says William LeoGrande, director of the school of public affairs at the American University in Washington, D.C.

Rus activism has been viewed by some government and Catholic Church officials as meddling outside his religious realm. The issue came to a head after a visit to Mexico by Pope John Paul II last August.

Ruiz reportedly gave the Pope a pastoral document raising questions about the credibility of Mexican elections and the impact of Mexico's ``neoliberal''economic policies on the poor.

In October, Vatican nuncio, Geronimo Prigione, said ``the removal'' of Ruiz from his post for ``doctrinal errors'' was being studied. The local press reported that Monsignor Prigione was bowing to pressure from the Mexican government. But the issue died in a flood of public support for Ruiz by other Mexican bishops and human rights organizations.

And Ruiz continues to speak his mind. When the government first announced terms for peace talks - a cease-fire and unconditional surrender - Ruiz was quick to criticize the government's proposal as lacking an amnesty offer. Days later, an amnesty offer was included.

Analysts are not surprised that the EZLN guerrillas - who deny any affiliation with the Catholic Church - requested in a Jan. 13 communique that Ruiz be a mediator ``as a Mexican patriot, not as a religious authority because this isn't a religious problem.''

And, despite the uneasy relationship between Ruiz and Mexican authorities, when government officials pass through here in pursuit of a peaceful solution to this crisis, the first stop is often the bishop's office.

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